'Steven Seagal: Lawman' was a thing. Photo via 'Steven Seagal: Lawman'
We live in a world where violence seems to be seeping in from all sides. From terrorism, drone bombings, hate crimes, and the constant racist burbling of insurgency from Trump devotees, unrestrained savagery is beating at the door of civility. How to understand this violence? In my mind, if you are trying to understand violence there is only man to look to: The king of the wrist-snap, Steven Seagal.
One of my happiest memories is staying home from school sick one day. My father was also home from work with an undisclosed ailment. We both decided that the best way to hang out with the least amount of talking was a movie marathon. And since we were two grizzled dudes that meant action movies. Our action hero above all others was Seagal. He was the man. Why? He's not good at acting, being funny, or telling a good story, no, what he's good at is messing people the fuck up. Satisfying the urge for violence is what Seagal traffics in. He's the champion of male vengeance against a world that is unfair and unjust. Perhaps a deep dive into Seagal's films will help me understand why this violence appealed to me and millions of men the world over. I decided to have another movie marathon sick day and watch four movies and see what sticks out like a ruptured femur after a particularly brutal side kick. The four movies I picked trace the spine of Seagal's career as well as match the insurrectionist theme of the current political climate.
Hard To Kill (1990)
- The beginning. Seagal plays police officer Mason Storm who awakens from a seven year coma and embarks on a mission of vengeance to kill a corrupt senator who is responsible for his wife's death and said coma. This is one of Seagal's earlier hits which means his never-good acting is limited to a range of squinting (less squinting equals good feelings, more squinting equals anger) and it looks and feels like soft-core porno. It also has the best horrible action movie line in his filmography, in response to his senator nemesis' campaign slogan, "You can take that to the bank," Seagal responds, "I'm going to take you to the bank…the blood bank." He also says this to a commercial on a TV while he's alone. It's a breathtaking cinematic moment, Seagal's rosebud.
Under Siege (1992)
- The masterpiece. Seagal is Casey Ryback a former Navy Seal who became a chef on aircraft carrier the USS Missouri after punching out a superior because nobody tells Seagal what to do do! When terrorists take over the ship, Ryback is all that stands between them and nuclear armageddon. This is the blockbuster, the game changer, the only competently made or "good" movie in the Seagal canon. This is thanks to The Fugitive director Andrew Davis who helms and Tommy Lee Jones who plays the bad guy and basically invents the kooky, anarchist villain archetype 16 years before Heath Ledger lit a big pile of money on fire.
On Deadly Ground (1994)
- The creative misfire. Seagal directed this box office flop and instead of giving his audience what they wanted he indulged in moral philosophizing about environmentalism, violence, and the nature of man (seriously). Seagal plays firefighter Forest Shaw who discovers the shady practices of the oil company that employs him, is informed by an Inuk elder that he is a bear spirit, goes on a vision quest, and then ends the movie with a monologue and montage that decries corporate destruction of the environment and calls the internal combustion engine obsolete. Seriously, this movie is bonkers, like An Inconvenient Truth if Al Gore knew how how take apart a handgun.
The Patriot (1998)
The first thing that struck me about Seagal's movies is the amount of ego on display. His movies are all monuments to the glory of Seagal, to his ineffable competence. Nobody ever says anything derogatory about Seagal in these movies. Quite the opposite. In every movie, multiple supporting characters repeatedly cite Seagal's transcendent brilliance. In Hard To Kill, Seagal's friend pushes a fellow cop who would dare criticize the ponytailed master, spitting into his face while yelling, "Mason Storm was the most honorable, the best cop on the force." In Under Siege, characters are constantly freaking out about Seagal's background, how highly trained he is, how dangerous he is. My favorite example is from the Seagal-directed On Deadly Ground, Seagal's character Forest Shaw shows up at the beginning to put out a fire on an oil rig. When he appears, a great cheer goes up and from off-screen a character yells, "Forest is here! That fire is as good as out now!" I just love the idea that in post-production, Seagal was like, "There aren't enough lines in this movie about how good I am at fighting fires, where can I jam one in?"
The ego is necessary though because it is what makes him a believable ass-kicker. Seagal doesn't have the obvious physical bonafides that the Arnold or Van-Damme does. Physically, Seagal's body went from a skinny, untoned, book-store clerk look in his earlier movies to progressively more and more bloated and decadent looking as the decade went on, until he arrived at his current look of mustachioed walrus crime lord. Even when he is fighting, it never looks impressive. While Van-Damme seems like he could spinning round kick a watermelon through a building, Seagal's kicks look like he is trying to open a door but has his hands full. The coolest part of his fighting style is the swirling arms thing he does whenever he fights a guy holding a knife,but I also think the finger-snapping gang members in West Side Story seem legitimately scary. But you believe that he will demolish a room full of guys because he and everyone else believes.
(This is when I should note, as many of his fans have told me over the course of writing this article, out of all the aforementioned action heroes, Seagal is probably the most legitimate in terms of actually being able to win a fight. He was the first white dude to teach in a dojo in Japan and he has trained UFC fighters like Anderson Silva on how to perfect their front kick. But I'm talking about movies, not real life. And on camera, Seagal seems to have all the physicality of step-dad climbing up a ladder to work on the roof.)
No matter who he is portraying, all of Seagal's characters have one thing in common, they are huge dicks. In all of his movies, his line-readings are filled with disdain. It's as if he's constantly annoyed at the camera itself for even trying to capture the glory of his image. He's a nightmare in these movies, sarcastic and mean to friends and enemies alike and when he's not doing that he is bossing people around arrogantly, treating the love interest in Under Siege like an idiot because she isn't as good at making bombs as him.
Where does this anger at others come from (assuming it's not just because he is actually a huge dick which is undoubtedly the case but less interesting)? The martial art Seagal practices is aikido. The philosophy of aikido focuses on harmony, it's about using your attacker's momentum against them to stop an attack but also leave them unharmed. How frustrating then to be a master of this art, like Seagal, and to constantly have to deal with a not harmonious world. To see how things should be but to be constantly thwarted and attacked by corrupt senators, inept generals, corporations, rubes, and fools. So he removes himself from the world annoyed whenever the world intrudes into the sanctuaries he's created.
Starting with Under Siege, Seagal's characters are initially resistant to getting involved. Violence in in his past, he's aware of its costs and limitations and now he just wants to focus on being a chef, oil rig firefighter, or contagious disease specialist (naturally). In fact the tension in these movies is always based on the overcoming of this resistance to fighting. As a protagonist, Seagal is never vulnerable, you never think of any of his enemies have a chance against him, there are no T-1000s or Tong Pos in sight, just a bunch of idiots and cowards that were foolish enough to piss the grumpy avenger off. Near the climax of On Deadly Ground he admonishes the young Inuk women accompanying him about thinking praying to the gods and protesting was ever going to be enough to stop an oil company's predations on their land, that violence was and is the answer. That's the real obstacle that the audience is concerned about—will Seagal get over his enlightened ideals, of pacifism and regret, and commit the acts of violence we crave, will those who deserve it get what's coming to them?
This is the appeal of Seagal then. He is the action hero of resentment. His is a mission of vengeance that resonates in the same key as Donald Trump does. It's the resentment and disdain toward a world that just doesn't listen, that will not bend to my will even though I'm so smart and have worked so hard and for sure know the path toward harmony. Every karate chop and invigorating wrist breaking is the revenge of an ego scorned. The morality, the environmentalism, and interest in First Nations philosophy—which he adorns on his stupid movies like a headdress at a music festival—is a fig leaf meant to cover the long existential howl of men's agency, which the myths of masculinity had promised was always ours to assert but denied by the complexities of co-existing with fellow humans.
My favorite moment in any of his movies takes place in On Deadly Ground. Seagal gets into a bar fight with some oil rig workers who had been bullying a drunk First Nations man (quite the ally, this Seagal guy.) After demolishing the crew, Seagal pauses beating down the ringleader, and asks the guy, "What does it take to change the essence of a man?"
The bleeding, punch drunk opponent responds, "Time. I…I need time to change."
To which Seagal says, "Me too."
I love this part because, one, it is absurd, but two, because it is a question that I ask of myself all the time—what will it take for me to change? Watching the Steve's films, it made me reflect on how much resentment I've let seep into my own life, how often I've held a friend's success against them, how often I've wasted days wallowing in self-pity because I didn't get something that I thought I deserved because of how good and smart I am and how stupid I thought the world is for not recognizing that. And I recoil thinking about the whisper of vengeance that gets attached to this resentment, the wanting to show the doubters and the haters how wrong they were and the hope that they will get theirs. This is why our egos are so dangerous because even if you are right or skilled or holy there is no guarantee that things will go your way and reacting to that fact is the true test. Will you listen to your ego and wish for a spirit of ponytailed vengeance or will you exhibit patience and acceptance? Based upon the horror of both the world and Seagal's late career, the latter is the the correct choice. So to change the essence of a man it takes more time, like a practitioner of aikido, the only way to change the essence of man is getting out of your own way.
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- The beginning of the end. Seagal plays a doctor (not just any doctor but the best damn infectious disease specialist in the damn world) who has to figure out a cure for a virus released by a far-right militia (i.e. proto Trump supporters). This movie did not even make it to theaters and it foretells the next almost two decades of his career, direct to video (streaming services), shoddily made movies, lethargic in pace, Seagal himself bloated, looking like a goateed overripe grape. This movie commits the worst crime a Seagal movie can, it's boring.